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Plugged In: Is Spatial Audio the Future of Music — or Just Noise?

This week: Described as the successor to stereo, Spatial Audio was the talk of the town in 2021. But has it lived up to the hype?

Over the past year, Spatial Audio’s slow start finally picked up steam. Apple Music incorporated Dolby Atmos, the immersive audio experience that has been present in movie theaters for years, into its streaming service at no additional cost and Amazon Music stepped up its efforts to accelerate the adoption of the format. With two of the three biggest streaming services adopting the technology, soon labels, artists and distributors were working to adopt it too, figuring out how to work with what many have called the successor to stereo and get it into the ears of consumers.

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Since 2019, streamers have been toying with Spatial Audio. Amazon Music and Tidal led the way with Atmos Music that year, while Sony’s competing immersive product, 360 Reality Audio, also started gaining attention. But adoption was slow, with a few thousand songs available in the format. Now things are speeding up; Amazon Music rebranded its offering from 3D Audio to Spatial Audio, several prominent catalogs (Katy Perry, J. Cole) have been remastered in Spatial, and support for the format has rapidly expanded, with new projects increasingly being released in Spatial Audio at their debut week.

The progress being made is real but being billed as the successor to stereo is a high bar to hit, and the conversation around Spatial Audio has dimmed in the past few months, despite the new releases. Is Spatial Audio living up to the hype, and can it really replace stereo?

“It’s definitely the next step after stereo, whether it’s going to be as groundbreaking from stereo to Spatial as it was from mono to stereo, I doubt,” a chairperson says. “There’s no Beatles moment here where, all of a sudden you have this incredible producer like George Martin that sort of plays with it. I think because of movie theaters, Dolby Atmos has been around for a while and we’re already used to the concept of hearing background noise behind us and side noise to the side of us, the novelty of it is gone. Even though it’s new for music services, it’s not something that is like this crazy, groundbreaking thing.”

The chairperson noted the challenges that come with remastering an artist’s catalog. For starters, fans already know the recordings and any changes to the mix can come with backlash. “I think that the incentive for catalog is Apple and Amazon and others basically are saying, well, ‘we’ll have to pay for it to be remastered,’ but then the artist has to be okay with it.,” the chairperson says. “Fans who would listen to that catalog either are great with the novelty or they’re like, ‘No, no, no, that’s not the way it’s supposed to sound.’ I do think that it’s a risk for catalog.”

“Particularly with artists that have a strong catalog, you have fans who are fans because they love and cherish your music and hearing it differently doesn’t always connect, so is it worth the risk?” one senior executive asks. “I think it’s going to be really hard for Spatial to scale in that way because it is not easy to deliver in that way, and I think it’s not easy to listen to.”

“Will we get a big enough selection of Dolby Atmos music in a short amount of time based on legacy content? Probably not,” one CEO says. “Will a newer generation going forward who’s used to Dolby Atmos and likes it be the drivers five years from now when we have five years of content with Dolby Atmos already baked in? Probably.”

“There’s no doubt that COVID has been a bit of thorn in the side of getting content,” another senior executive says. “It’s hard for me to normalize against how much new content would be created with Spatial Audio in the absence of COVID. Because it slowed down workflows and artists’ approvals and all that kind of stuff. We are seeing a huge percentage of what I would call higher profile new releases coming out in Spatial and a lot of back catalog stuff too. The catalog still has a long way to go to get to the point where when I listen to music, no matter what I’m listening to, if it’s an album or an artist or a playlist of varied artists, I’m going to get a significant percentage of Spatial Audio in the mix. We’re still not there yet. But there’s definitely a lot of momentum behind Spatial Audio. We are very bullish on it.”

“With my new artist we did an Atmos mix more so, to be candid, because of Apple and wanting that love and support from them — because they are gatekeeping what comes in unless there is Spatial Audio,” one founder says. “Time will tell if it’s going to stick, or if it’s just basically a digital version of remastering the same old box set by the Rolling Stones every holiday season. I think there’s still a lot of listeners, perhaps more of the Gen Z element, they aren’t focused so much on the quality of music. Of course, there’s always that percentage, but in general, it seems like they’re not so focused on that. What’s interesting is using Atmos for more metaverse opportunities because it’s 3D and immersive, I think those should be the mixes that labels should push on various platforms for larger opportunities.”

“I don’t think it’s one of these other formats that’s going to come and go,” one senior executive says. “Back in the physical music era, when you’d have all these attempts to create a new format, so that we’d all spend more money on the gear and re-buy our collections. I really don’t think it’s that. I think it is a materially different audio experience. I think it’s going to take a little more time. But you’ve seen most of the biggest artists embrace it for their new releases, so I do think it’s going to be big.”